Joy Beyond Conditions

On December 16, 2019, in Sunshine Cathedral, by Rev.Dr. Robert

Turning Pink with Joy Rev Elder Dr Mona West Today we lit the third candle in the Advent wreath. Has anyone noticed that it is pink? (This is a queer church, of course we noticed!) Pink, or Rose, is the liturgical color for Joy. In the early history of the Christian church, Advent was observed […]

Turning Pink with Joy
Rev Elder Dr Mona West

Today we lit the third candle in the Advent wreath. Has anyone noticed that it is pink? (This is a queer church, of course we noticed!) Pink, or Rose, is the liturgical color for Joy. In the early history of the Christian church, Advent was observed as a penitential season, much like the season of Lent. On the third Sunday there is a call to take a break from all that penance and rejoice. This is Gaudete Sunday which is the first word in Latin for the Introit to the Mass: Gaudete! or Rejoice! Deep into the rhythm of repentance of the season, the third candle is lit as an invitation to joy. In protestant traditions we tend to focus on the waiting and anticipation of the season, and not so much on the repenting. But we still have this pink candle that we light, right smack dab in the middle of the season. In our time and place, we light this Gaudete candle, deep into the rhythm of the scarcity and fear that pervades our culture and our lives. In the midst of global warming, immigration injustice, impeachment hearings, fake news, terrorist alerts, and mass shootings, this candle invites us to rejoice.

This morning we heard some familiar stories from the gospel of Luke, that I will get to in a moment, but first I want to share from the gospel of Brené Brown… She is a sociologist and researcher who has written many books on how to live courageously and compassionately in our world today. In one of her first books, Daring Greatly, she shares stories of her research on vulnerability. In it she claims that vulnerability is joy’s constant companion. In order for us to receive joy we must be willing to be vulnerable.

Let’s think about that for a minute. All of us want to be joyful, right? Who wouldn’t want joy in their lives? I’m not talking about happiness, which is an emotion connected to circumstances. We get a new car, we are happy. We get a speeding ticket, we are unhappy.

Joy has a deeper dimension to it, a spiritual quality about it. But we resist it because in order to feel and live in that deeper level of joy, we have to be vulnerable. Brown explains it this way: “We wake up one morning and think, Work is going well. Everyone in the family is healthy. No major crises are happening. The house is still standing. I’m working out and feeling good….Oh, shit. This is bad. This is really bad. Disaster must be lurking right around the corner.”

She calls this “foreboding joy.” We resist joy because in order to receive it, we open ourselves to risk and uncertainty. We are afraid the joy won’t last, or we don’t deserve it. To receive joy is certainly a set up for failure, as soon as we let down our guard and receive it, surely some disaster will come along to take it away. And so, we shield ourselves from this kind of vulnerability with “foreboding joy.”

I grew up in Louisiana and there is something about southern culture that thrives on “foreboding joy.” Don’t play in the front yard, you might wander out into the street and get hit by a car. Don’t play in the rain, you might get a cold. Make sure you have bread close by when you eat fried fish in case you get a bone stuck in your throat.

When I was about 10 years old, I had a best friend named Cindy Littleton. One day she invited me to go with her family to their grandmother’s house in the country. Her grandmother had a pond on her property, and we could go swimming! Well, when I asked mother if I could go, she agreed but told me under no circumstances could I swim in that pond, because I might drown.
So, off to grandmother’s house we go. Me, Cindy, her sister Sandra, and her daddy, Shorty, in his El Camino. Now for those of you who don’t know, an El Camino was a cross between a chevorlet truck and station wagon. It’s like a car-truck…

Of course the first thing we did when we got to Cindy’s grandmother’s was to take off our clothes and go swimming in the pond, which was at the bottom of a hill. Shorty was fishing on the other side of the pond, Sandra was in the El Camino parked at the top of the hill, listening to the radio. The next thing I knew, Sandra was running down the hill screaming, “get out of the way, get out of the way of the car!” Somehow she had released the emergency brake on the El Camino while listening to the radio and it was rolling down the hill toward us!

I barely made it out of the path of the El Camino as it hit the water, suffering a bruised knee. By the time Shorty made it to the scene of the accident I was standing there with mud all over me, crying and exclaiming, “God punished me for disobeying my mother!”

The moral of this story is not, “mind your mother.” The moral of this story is “we can pass foreboding joy on to our kids, and it can lead to bad theology!”

Well, on to the gospel according to Luke. I believe the characters in the stories we heard today have some lessons to share with us about embracing joy. First of all, joy comes to us in the ordinary moments of our lives. We can miss joy’s surprise if we are busy chasing after it in the extraordinary. What could be more ordinary that tending sheep, or going to the Temple every day. The shepherds and Simeon don’t feel entitled to joy, in fact they are the last people their society would have expected to experience any kind of joy. Being a Shepherd was one of the worst occupations you could have in the ancient world, no one would expect a shepherd to have joy! As an old man with no family of his own, Simeon would also be considered an outcast, and worthless in his society. Nearing the end of his life, certainly his odds for joy had run out. But that is the good news of the gospel of Luke. The joy found in the Christmas story comes to the most unlikely characters of the day—an unwed mother, smelly shepherds, asenior citizen…There is something about the “ordinariness” of joy that makes it subversive, and we need more of that kind of joy in our society today.

Which leads me to my second point: joy is for the telling and celebrating. Don’t apologize for your joy! We might be tempted to shrink back from our joy with all the chaos, loss and meanness around us, but there is something about that pink candle that doesn’t just invite us, it commands us to “rejoice.” Just like the candle pinkness inserts itself into the rhythm of this season, sharing our joy can be a spiritual practice that inserts itself into our weary world. Simeon shared his joy in a song, and that shared joy is prayed by thousands of people today every night before going to sleep: Now let your servant go in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation.
Luke tells us “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” Can you imagine what Christmas would have been if the shepherds had kept the experience of the nativity to themselves. “What if people think we were crazy to leave our sheep to go find this baby? We aren’t sure this child is going to be all that is expected of him; maybe we should forget this happened. We might be arrested for sharing this kind of news.”

The shepherds teach us not to squander our joy. Instead of resisting it because of fear of vulnerability, lean into it. When we overcome our foreboding and lean into joy, we build resilience and cultivate hope. Joy becomes a part of us and when bad things do happen we don’t lose our joy, instead we are stronger to endure those times.

Richard Rohr defined joy as both a decision and a surrender. Eventually we stop being preoccupied with creating a fault-free environment that will ensure our own happiness, and we discover that joy is much more like falling into God, falling into Love. You don’t manufacture joy, you collapse into it when you give up trying to make it happen.

Today, on this third Sunday of Advent, I invite us to turn pink with joy

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